Let’s say Trump, ever the escape artist, avoids prison, setting himself up as the warlord of MAGA-world at Mar-a-Lago. His post-presidency still won’t be easy. As The Times has reported, he’s personally on the hook for $421 million in debt, most of it coming due in the next four years. If a long fight with the I.R.S. goes against him, he could owe at least $100 million more.
“Mr. Trump still has assets to sell,” The Times reported. “But doing so could take its own toll, both financial and to Mr. Trump’s desire to always be seen as a winner.”
Trump is already trying to profit off his avid base, and he will surely continue. But it’s an open question whether, without the intoxicating aura of presidential power, he can sustain their devotion. There are several examples of once-formidable right-wing leaders reduced to footnotes after leaving office.
As Republican House majority leader, Tom DeLay was frequently described as the most powerful man in Congress. Then, in 2005, he was indicted on a charge of campaign money laundering. Though his 2010 conviction was eventually overturned on appeal, the last time he had any significant public profile was when he appeared on “Dancing With the Stars” in 2009.
Sarah Palin, too, was once a Republican icon; in many ways she presaged Trump. “Win or Lose, Many See Palin as Future of Party,” said a New York Times headline just before the 2008 election. It quoted the right-wing activist Brent Bozell: “Conservatives have been looking for leadership, and she has proved that she can electrify the grass roots like few people have in the last 20 years.”
But since resigning as Alaska’s governor in 2009, Palin has lost her luster. Once a likely presidential prospect, she recently made headlines for wearing a pink and purple bear costume on the Fox reality show “The Masked Singer.”
Trump is in for years of scandals and humiliations. We will doubtlessly find out more about official misdeeds he tried to keep secret as president. Republicans who hope to succeed him will have reason to start painting him as a loser instead of a savior. He’ll have to devote much of his energy to trying to stay out of prison.